By Peter Becker
Dreams can come true, even those that reach for the stars- literally.
Joseph Fluhr found out.
The 39-year old Hawley-area resident has always loved space. Since he was a kid living in the countryside of Shohola, he has looked at the stars and was amazed at accounts of manned space flight. Like many kids, he thought it would be neat someday to be an astronaut. Float around in a tin can orbiting the Good Earth? Kick dust walking on the Moon? Why not see up close just how red Mars rocks really are? If you stand on your tippy toes the stars aren't so far beyond one's arm length, after all.
Then reality set it.
He settled for being a science teacher, an Earth and Space science teacher of course, a job he evidently loves. His 10th year at Lehman Intermediate School is coming up. He teaches 7th and 8th graders at the school in southern Pike County, with a passion.
But there were always the stars. If he couldn't go, why not send his old friend, his test pilot?
We refer to his Astro Smurf.
Yes, his vinyl blue-faced Smurf, not quite two inches tall, which he has had since his Dad, George Fluhr, gave him when he was a kid of about seven or eight.
Maybe he could send his childhood Smurf toy into orbit.
Crazy? He did it. Read on.
In brief, his Smurf was carried aboard the International Space Station last year, by a cooperative Russian cosmonaut. He also took with him pictures of the kids at Lehman Intermediate School, that Fluhr provided. The cosmonaut took lots of pictures of the weightless Smurf as well as the school photos- which were together in a small collage, laminated in plastic.
After six months in space and traveling 53 million miles, his Smurf came home, along with the pictures the cosmonaut snapped. Fluhr has made multiple presentations at his school since then, to an excited bunch of kids as well as fellow faculty and administrators, who supported his scheme all along.
How in the Universe did Fluhr do it?
Let's go back some 30 years.
His Smurf is one of a collection he had; this one was his favorite as it was an "Astro Smurf", with the little blue character dressed in a white space suit. It used to have a plastic bubble helmet. As a boy, Fluhr would like to stick his Smurf on top his toy rockets, as his "test pilot."
One time he made a rocket with paper towel tubes. With Smurf lodged in the nose cone, he tried to fire it by lighting the kindling. Unfortunately it caught fire, the Smurf fell down inside and one foot partly melted, and his father yelled at him not to do that.
The Smurf recovered, as did young Joe Fluhr. His beloved Smurf went aboard his remote-controlled toy planes, and when he was a bit older, the Smurf went aloft on more serious model rockets.
Now an adult, Fluhr still would see those stars. In 2005 he was at Cape Canaveral to watch a Space Shuttle launch. He had the Astro Smurf in his pocket for good luck.
In a hunch, he wondered if there were private space companies planning to take artifacts from the public aloft in their test rockets, but alas, he learned they didn't do that.
Meanwhile, Fluhr has kept up a hobby of collecting space memorabilia. He has given a lot of on-line business to a German company, spaceflori.com, which deals in space-related products. They sell all sorts of stuff, such as meteorites, tiny chips of rocket hardware or equipment that has flown into space, autographed photos, mission patches, space stamps and covers and jewelry. Fluhr is considered a "VIP customer."
As such, one day in early November 2011, out of the blue- or perhaps out of the black of space- Fluhr received an email from the company. They wanted to know if he had anything he would like sent into space. They had arrangements with a Russian cosmonaut who was willing to take with him a few items next time he went to the Space Station. Usually, he takes only flat objects like letters or photos. Nothing "three-dimensional."
How about Astro Smurf, Fluhr asked. The company president replied, saying it may not be possible, but they would ask.
Fluhr went down to the Hawley Post Office, not far from his house, Smurf in hand. He asked the clerk to weigh it for him. The understanding and surely amused clerk helped him out. Fluhr sent this data along with a photo of the Smurf next to a ruler, to show its size.
This was Smurf's big chance- that is, Fluhr's big chance. His test pilot buddy had to be ready. In an e-mail exchange, Fluhr got the big word- his toy could go- but it had to be thoroughly cleaned. Astro Smurf still had 30 years of toil- and soil- on him (it).
Fortunately his (it's) "foot injury" from that test paper towel-tube- rocket launch pad fire 30 years ago did not hinder.
Toothbrush in hand, Fluhr gave the toy a spic and span cleaning. He was cleared and ready for lift-off.
They learned he was a science teacher, and offered to send a picture of the students as well.
Fluhr had been "talking this up" at his school, and successfully ignited their passion as well. The whole school was involved, with about 750 children posed for group class photos. The assembled collage was shipped out with the Smurf.
On November 12, 2011, the space journey would begin with its first leg -Astro Smurf carefully packed up in a box, and shipped- from the Hawley Post Office, to Germany.
Astonished that the day had finally come, Fluhr said he also secretly wondered if he'd ever see the Smurf again, or would the Smurf somehow get left behind on Planet Earth.
There was a short delay on arrival in Germany. Fluhr learned that Astro Smurf, for whatever reason, had been seized by German custom agents. No joke.
The Smurf and photo finally headed to the Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. The items were packed with the personal belongings of the cosmonaut and carried to the Russian Space Center at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The original launch date was set back two months, after an accident on the launch pad which damaged the rocket. Finally, on May 15, 2012, with the same crew, rocket TMA-04M launched and was headed to the International Space Station, Expedition 31 mission.
An excited Fluhr watched the launch at home late that evening, live on NASA TV, with his family. Many of his students watched as well. The launch was taped and shown repeatedly the next day at his school on a large screen.
Fluhr instructed his students to watch the night sky for the Space Station, which at certain times crosses over, looking like a very bright star. He said most of his students were enraptured by the whole voyage, asking many questions and thrilled to think that the Smurf that their teacher had let them handle, as well as the photos, were aboard.
The school took up the project in their curriculum. The math teacher used it to calculate the distance the Smurf traveled. The social studies teacher discussed the geography of Kazakhstan. The reading teacher read the history of the Russian space program. The English teacher had the students write thank you letters to to company in Germany, and to the cosmonaut.
There was no confirmation during the mission that Smurf was even aboard. Fluhr watched the "bright star" pass overhead that long summer, wondering how things were going.
Then on September 12, 2012, the cosmonaut and cargo from the Space Station landed in Russia- with the Smurf and pictures. Several months later, the box arrived. He had word ahead, and watched as the Hawley postman came up Spruce Street and delivered Astro Smurf to his mailbox.
Fifty three million miles, more than 2000 orbits around the Earth traveling through space at 17,500 miles an hour- and the dream was fulfilled, having departed from the Hawley Post Office and returned home in the hands of a Hawley mail carrier over a year later.
Fluhr said it was amazing, to see the Astro Smurf again.
Photos sent back from the cosmonaut showed the Smurf floating in a window of the Space Station observation cupola. Outside, the big round Earth hung to one side; a docked Soyuz space capsule was situated just outside The school photos were clearly visible, affixed to the window sill.
Lest anyone think the space pictures were faked, Fluhr notes that under magnification, one can detect not one but six reflections of the floating Smurf in the glass window. The Space Station windows have six panes of glass, for protection from micro-meteoroids. the Earth can be seen gradually shifting in each of the pictures as the Smurf merrily wanders in Zero-G.
The principal at the school announced on the intercom, "Our items have returned."
Fluhr have several presentations at the school, showing the proud and beaming kids the pictures and items that represented a mission accomplished, a dream fulfilled.
One boy, upon holding the Smurf again, said,"I really touched something that went to space!"
Fluhr said that what excites him the most is to involve the 7th and 8th graders, and see them inspired by this adventure. For Fluhr, he smiled that although he could not get to space, his Smurf did.
One of the school's English teachers put it this way, "This toy had already been in space many times in a child's imagination How fantastic is it that this time it really got to go."
For Astro Smurf, Fluhr said it was hard to top this, and he (the toy) deserved a retirement from being shot into the air, burned up, seized, and fired into outer space. He said he'd like it to be go to a museum some day. For now, it is proudly placed in a glass cabinet in the main lobby of the Lehman Intermediate School, along with the photos of the kids and those taken in space.
For the students, it was a vivid lesson that dreams can come true. The night sky is limitless.
He said he wanted to help spark in the kids aspirations for America's space program. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, he said that in the public imagination, space in some sense has taken a back seat.
"I wanted to rekindle interest in the space program... to rekindle fire and imaginative spirit in them. They can learn that dreams are possible, even if it takes 30 years- you can still make it happen."